WAY TO LIVE_DOT I (GOD) // CHAPTER 1
If you haven’t read the prologue yet, click here.
“An unexamined life is not worth living.” // Socrates
The philosopher Cicero tells a story of Dionysus II, the king of Syracuse in the fourth and fifth centuries BC. He was rich and powerful, but remarkably unhappy. He ruled with an iron fist and made many enemies as king.
He lived under the constant fear of assassination. In fact, it is believed that his bedchamber was surrounded by a moat on all sides to prevent would-be assassins from killing him in his sleep.
In Cicero’s story, a man named Damocles lavished Dionysus with compliments and stated how full of joy his life must be.
“Since this life delights you,” Dionysus said to Damocles, “do you wish to taste it yourself and make a trial of my good fortune?”
When Damocles agreed, Dionysus seated him on a large golden couch and ordered his servants to wait on Damocles hand and foot. He was treated to the best food and drink that Syracuse had to offer. Damocles couldn’t believe it. He was getting to live the life of a king.
As soon as he had begun to fully enjoy his experience, he looked toward the ceiling. The happiness he felt left him as quickly as it had come. Hanging from the ceiling, just above his head was a sword. Suspended only by a single strand of horsehair.
From that moment on, Damocles could no longer enjoy the couch, the food, the drinks or the servants. After casting several glances at the sword dangling above him by a thread, he asked to be excused saying that he no longer wished to be as fortunate as Dionysus.
How many of us look at those we see as successful and wonder what good fortune they must have while we experience the worst of it? How many people have we seen find “happiness” only to see their lives get worse because of it? How many times do we look at those who have more money, success or influence and wish to sit where they sit, not taking time to glance at the precariousness of their—as well as our—own sword of Damocles?
Maybe we are all like Dionysus in some way. Blessed abundantly, but we have eyes that only see the instability of our fortune. Maybe we are like Damocles and wish to sit in the seat of others, not understanding the uncertainty of their experience.
Take a minute and ask yourself this question: What do you want out of life?
A good job? Nice house? Caring spouse? Money? Success? Influence? Happiness?
These are just some of the things that all of us want out of life. Sometimes we look at things like this and really do believe that attaining these things will eventually help us to accomplish some grand purpose.
We can know minute by minute what we want. Or even decade by decade. But what do you want out of your whole life? Out of all the things you could seek out and pursue, what do you think is most valuable?
The sword of Damocles teaches us that happiness can be lost at any time. Much of what we spend our lives doing can, in a moment, become meaningless.
Have you ever taken the time to decide what you want out of life? What would be worth your effort, strife and toil in your short time on Earth?
Have you considered that for all your striving and effort you could actually mislive? That you could miss the point of your entire existence and live a life that is unfulfilling and meaningless? Culture offers us many things that seem valuable. How many times have we heard of people regretting their pursuit of society’s definition of happiness? How many times have we pursued fame, fortune, influence and power hoping they would make us feel less empty?
For centuries, people have searched the world over for gold. For centuries, untrained prospectors have also been fooled by pyrite, now known as fool’s gold. Pyrite looks like gold and is often found next to gold deposits, but it isn’t gold. Even though they can look similar if we’re not paying attention, gold and pyrite couldn’t be more different. Today (2022) gold can sell for up to $2,000 an ounce while pyrite sells for $0.16 an ounce.
Living a life without deciding what we want out of it is a lot like an untrained prospector finding pyrite. Once we find something that seems valuable, we can feel as though we’ve struck it rich, but we are despondent when we discover the truth.
Just like it is possible to live a good life, it is also possible to live a bad life. This is not something we often want to think about, but we should think about it now. The fact that we can think about it today means we can determine not to mislive—not to live a bad life—starting now. It’s that simple. But simple ≠ easy.
As Maria says in The Sound of Music, “Let’s start at the very beginning, that’s a very good place to start.”
Start right now, decide what you want out of life.
What do you want out of life? That’s a big question.
To determine what you want out of life, you should decide how you will measure your life. At the end of your life, what will you measure to determine whether you were successful?
Not sure? What do most people on their deathbed wish for, long for or find joy in? Their money? Their status? At the end of their life, most people measure the success of their life according to the quality of their relationships. The regrets of dying people aren’t for more hours at work, more influence, a bigger house or a better job. They wish for more and better relationships. They wish to have made a bigger impact on the lives of the people around them.[i]
A former hospice nurse, Bonnie Ware, wrote a book titled Top Five Regrets of the Dying filled with her career-long observations of dying people. The top five wishes she identified were:
The wish for the courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them.
The wish that they hadn’t worked so hard. Every male patient she encountered felt they missed their children’s youth and partner’s companionship.
The wish that they would have had the courage to express their feelings.
The wish that they had stayed in touch with their friends.
The wish that they had realized happiness was a choice.[ii]
The Harvard Study for Adult Development is one of the longest studies ever done on adult life. Begun in 1938 with 268 Harvard sophomores, the study continues today with over 1,300 of these men’s offspring as well as other families from around Boston. Overwhelmingly, this study provides evidence that the greatest predictor of a good life is the quality of a person’s relationships.[iii] The key to mental, physical and emotional health is relationships.
How many of us live our lives and prioritize our focus as if relationships are the most important thing? Not many. Think about the people in your life. I would venture to say that the happiest and healthiest people you know also have some of the best friendships, marriages and relationships. Both anecdotally and through research, we see that the greatest thing we can measure our life by is the quality of our relationships.
We know this, but do we do this? Do you or I really measure our life by the quality of our relationships? Is that our pursuit? Is that what keeps us up at night? Thinking, “How can I improve my relationships?” Most people don’t embrace this way of thinking until they are dying. What if we lived with this understanding while we were still living? Understand that our lives are terminal, and at the end of our lives, we will have wished to make an impact on those closest to us.
This is universal across religion, race, creed or status. This is in the heart of every person who has or will walk the face of this earth. Our greatest contribution to the world is the gift of our life to those people we encounter every day.
Considering these things, here are two questions you and I should answer:
How will I measure my life?
What do I want out of life?
One day you will die. At the end, what will you think of your life? What will you say to yourself?
A eulogy is a speech given at a funeral in praise of someone. Imagine the day of your funeral, your best friend gets up to deliver your eulogy. What do you want them to say about you? What do you want the people around you to feel and think about you after you are gone?
The way you answer those questions about then should determine how you will answer these questions now.
Take some time and think about those two questions. This is your life, what do you want out of it?
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.” // Ralph Waldo Emerson
[i] Bronnie Ware, Top 5 Regrets of the Dying (California, USA: Hay House Inc., 2012).
[ii] Ware, Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.
[iii] Harvard Second Generation Study (website), 2015, https://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org.